Periodical Illiteracy (or How I Learned to Love My Public Library)


Cheryl stood outside the heavy glass doors of her local public library, stepping to one side and nodding as the Tween pushed through in a rush, tinny post-Disney pop leaking from a pair of bright pink ear buds. Her forceful exit left the door open wide enough for Cheryl to step through without touching anything.

She didn’t want to leave any fingerprints. 

Breathless, nervous, she crossed in front of the circulation desk and mounted the broad steps of the staircase to the second floor. She usually jogged up the steps when she went in search of the science and history books with which she felt most comfortable; this time she forced herself to break her pattern and climb slowly.

A quick left, past the bespectacled reference librarian with the carelessly artful hair sculpture. Lowering her head to stifle a snicker, Cheryl slowed as she passed the desk. Bernie Sanders’ voice floated inside her head, unbidden, as she passed the man: “I don’t always comb my hair, but when I do, I use a balloon.” The librarian smiled and leaned comfortingly toward a confused patron, and pointed to the south end of the library to Non-Fiction: Psychology and Paranormal.

Grabbing the moment’s distraction, Cheryl cleared the rows of computer stations, free and available at two-hour time slots for patrons, and counted down the eight stacks of fiction and past the three stacks of mysteries, to cut through via the aisle between the second stack of Romance novels and the first stack of Science Fiction. The open area ahead of her held quartets of chairs around low tables, and display cubes of popular magazines: Vanity Fair, O, Car and Driver, Midwest Gardening, The North Cabin Review.

She had arrived at the news and periodicals section, her target destination. Her cheeks warmed to scarlet, as she scanned the patrons seated in the comfortable chairs and loitering by the newspapers for anyone who might recognize her. She walked around the perimeter of this corner of the library, checking the few faces hidden behind raised newspapers.

Nobody she knew. So far, so good. She allowed herself a sigh of relief.

She looked askance at the display for the major local newspapers: Star Tribune, Pioneer Press. Had they gotten skinnier because so few read hard copies of the newspaper anymore, or were others just as clueless about local news as she was about what content the magazines covered?

Noting that the library carried the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Cheryl started to feel good about the fact that she was at least familiar with those newspapers. Shamed and horrified, she sharply remonstrated herself for her own arrogance, reminding herself that that if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, you have to scan the neighborhood newsprint biweeklies and monthlies found in neighborhood coffee shops and at the entrances to local co-ops. To get a sense of the literary world, it is imperative that one stretch beyond the magazines easily found in chain supermarkets, and study real literary magazines such as Daedalus, The Sun, The Iowa Review, n+1, Whistling Shade, and Arcana Review International. Not found at this local library, but still…

That’s what she’d been told by the small, close circle of men and women she’d met at the West Side Creative Writing Group. And they seemed awfully sure of themselves.

She shuddered at her ignorance and soldiered on.

This was her second time in as many weeks, visiting the stacks of popular magazines, archives of which were located along the front windows of her local library. In a way that was strange and entirely unfamiliar to her, she felt grateful for so many free and accessible materials with which she could research and learn about the world. Sliding her hands into the front pockets of her khaki cargo shorts and gripping her car keys, she slumped a little, shuffling in her flip-flops, and tried to fit in.

But oh the shame! You never, ever want to go to your public library’s magazine and newspaper section more than once in a lifetime. But then again, she had to start somewhere; she felt woefully inadequate in her level of basic magazine reading.

She ran her fingers along the stack of archives of periodicals, starting from the end of the alphabet this time, and carefully slid an invitingly much-paged issue from the middle of a pile. A quick look located the quiet chair near the end of the windows, away from the other patrons. Cheryl sighed in relief and set to.

She didn’t want anyone to find out she had Periodical Illiteracy.


© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2019)

Midtown Global Market Writers prompts: 3 mins on “periodical illiteracy” and 4 mins on “Never go to”  (No one in our morning writing group had a clear clue as to what ‘periodical literacy’ could be, but all came up with something for the prompt. This is my attempt to create order out of my chaos…)

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